Local trains clatter by in the dark, making the filth beneath them fly, as Atul Kumar makes his way to the railway signal just north of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
“I have to remain constantly alert. If I lose focus, even for a second, there is a good chance I will be run over,” he says. “We who work on the tracks are always afraid we will be run over.”
Kumar, 30, has been an electrical signal technician at CST, Mumbai’s busiest train station, for three years.
“Each technician is given a section to maintain. Mine is just outside the station,” he says.
Kumar came to Mumbai from Bhagalpur, Bihar, in 2007, as a trainee recruited through the railway board’s open exams. A science graduate, he wanted to pursue engineering but could not afford further study.
He now works rotational, eight-hour shifts that stretch from 8am to 4pm, 4pm to midnight, and midnight to 8am.
He spends an additional four hours a day commuting from his one-bedroom home in Titwala, a far-flung suburb on the outskirts of Thane district, to his workplace in Mumbai.
This means he has little time left for his wife, Poonam, and six-month-old daughter. “My wife used to complain a lot,” he says, smiling. “It’s true that this is not an ideal situation, but even so, the feeling of elation I get when a train passes by safely because of me is incomparable.”
Currently on the midnight shift, Kumar starts his day at 4 pm, when he wakes up to a breakfast of tea and toast. He then settles down to study for an upcoming public services exam.
At 8 pm, he has a bath, eats a dinner of dal, rice and kheer prepared for him by his wife, kisses his daughter goodbye and begins the three-minute walk to the railway station.
At CST by 10.30 pm, he marks his entry in a logbook and meets the outgoing shift worker for a status update. He then heads to the tracks.
Carrying a walkie-talkie, Kumar and two colleagues follow fixed schedules, visiting each signal post to check the bulbs, confirm that voltage is correct and steady and ensure that all circuit connections are intact.
In addition, the team is also on call in case of emergencies such as signal failure, tracks not changing and cutting of signal wires by thieves. “The work is never done,” says Kumar. “It’s an endless loop of checks and maintenance.”
Even on his annual holiday, Kumar says he find himself worrying about work: Are the signals ok? What if an emergency turns into a mishap because the office was further short-staffed when he took leave?
Monsoon is the toughest time of the year, he adds, because there are always more issues to be tackled. “Vital machinery may get submerged and stop working, or there may be accumulation of rust and moss. Everything has to be constantly cleaned and oiled.”
In these months, Kumar and his colleagues suffer frequent chills and spend days patrolling the tracks in pouring rain while battling headaches and fevers. Back home by 10 am, Kumar has another bath to wash the grit of the tracks off himself. Then he wolfs down some roti-sabzi and plays with his daughter before going to sleep at 1 pm.
“I came to Mumbai to earn, and I am happy with my salary of Rs. 21,000 a month. It helps me support my family and my parents,” he says. “But my dream is to ace my public services exam and get a good job back home in Bihar.”
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